05 May 2015

Four beginnings, or three?

I have to wonder if there is any good scholarship as yet devoted to bringing that great classical Chinese philosopher, Meng Ke 孟軻 (Mencius), into contact with modern Russian philosophy. I’m sure there is, and truth be told I haven’t had the willpower or the resources to really get digging for it yet. I wanted to offer here, though, a few loosely-organised thoughts comparing and contrasting Mencius’s theory of moral anthropology with that of Russian Christian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov – or rather, more specifically, the moral anthropology found in the Mencius with that found in The Justification of the Good – because the parallels I had noticed are incredibly interesting and offer a potentially deep window of overlap.

There is a lot I could write about Solovyov. His thinking, even in this one slim volume, is incredibly dense. But here it’s only his moral anthropology I’m concerned with – his understanding of human nature and how his ethical theory arises out of it. Solovyov’s moral philosophy begins with an exposition of the proclivities, grounded deeply within human nature, toward some end beyond the scope of natural human life.

His discourse on the ‘justification of the good’ begins with an assessment of the ‘primary data’, drawing on Darwin in particular, and discovers in human nature one fact which distinguishes it from all other forms of lower life: namely, the feeling or awareness of shame. Shame denotes a negative, alienating reaction to one’s own animal (in Solovyov’s telling, sexual) nature, one which cannot be accounted for by the brute evolutionary logic of self-preservation and transmission of one’s genome from one generation to the next. Shame directs human attention to an end outside of mortal existence, to the awareness that the human life was directed at some purpose outside of that life.

It excites and necessitates the accessory feelings of pity and reverence, and these Solovyov takes care to rank thus: shame regulates our moral interactions with our own ‘lower natures’; pity regulates our moral interactions with other human beings, those we recognise as our equals in likeness; and reverence regulates our moral interactions with our parents, and by extension all those superior and prior to us in age and wisdom. These ‘fundamental feelings… exhaust the sphere of man’s possible moral relations to that which is below him, that which is on a level with him, and that which is above him’, and all other virtues can be explained or examined in light of the proper development and orientation of these three basic moral feelings.

Solovyov carefully teases out his entire moral anthropology from these three threads. From them he fires broadsides both against utilitarianism and against the unreasonable psychological demands and shortcomings of the Kantian deontology to which his own philosophy owes so much. Utilitarianism falls short precisely in its confusion of ‘the good’ with pleasure, and in its need to derive moral principles solely from an account of human pleasure (no matter how refined). Kantianism, on the other hand, suffers in its divorce of an abstract, subjective form of the good from its fulfilment in human flourishing – this leads him to misunderstand the demands of the conscience and of moral feeling as foreign to actual moral decision-making. Though Solovyov might not expressly state his own ‘justification’ as in the virtue-ethical tradition, and though his thinking bears strongly the stamp of his German idealist influences throughout, his insistence upon a unity of means and ends, and of connecting lived experience with the project of ethical philosophy, do tend to place him somewhere within the virtue-ethical ‘stream’.

Solovyov’s emphasis on moral ‘feelings’ reminded me instantly of Mencius’s ‘four beginnings’. In the first part of the Gongsun Chou, Mencius says:
All men have a sense of compassion. As the ancient kings had such a sense, they had the compassionate system of government. Running such a government with such a sense, one would find it as easy to rule the world as to roll something on the palm of one’s hand. The reason why I say all men have a sense of compassion is that, even today, if one chances to see a little child about to fall into a well, one will be shocked, and moved to compass on, neither because he wants to make friends with the child’s parents, nor because he wants to earn praise from his neighbours and friends, nor because he hates to hear the cry of the child.

From this we can see that whoever has no sense of compassion is not human; whoever has no sense of shame is not human; whoever has no sense of modesty is not human; and whoever has no sense of right and wrong is not human. The sense of compassion is the beginning of benevolence; the sense of shame the beginning of righteousness; the sense of modesty the beginning of decorum; the sense of right and wrong the beginning of wisdom.

Man possesses these four beginnings just as he possesses four limbs. Anyone possessing these four and saying that he cannot do what is required of him is abasing himself. If he says that his ruler cannot do what is required of him, he is abasing his ruler. Let a man know how to develop fully all these beginnings he possesses, and it may be compared to the starting of a fire or the gushing out of a spring. If these are fully developed, he can protect the whole world; if not, he will not be able even to serve his parents.

Like Solovyov, Mencius recognises that human beings have the distinction of moral feelings to separate them from animals. And Mencius’s account of the ‘four beginnings’ bear an uncanny resemblance to Solovyov’s basic moral feelings. Mencius’s ‘sense of shame’ (xiu’e zhi xin 羞惡之心) and Solovyov’s are identical. His ‘sense of compassion’ (ceyin zhi xin 惻隱之心) is directly analogous to Solovyov’s moral feeling of ‘pity’. And his ‘sense of modesty’ (cirang zhi xin 辭讓之心) is somewhat culturally-coded into a Chinese mentality, deferring honours and rewards out of a knowledge of one’s place in the social fabric, but there’s enough of an analogy within that cultural coding to be drawn to Solovyov’s feeling of ‘reverence’ to be, at the very least, interesting.

Even more interesting: Mencius explains all other virtues, all other forms of morally-correct behavior from the very basis of ‘serving one’s parents’ to governing ‘all under heaven’, in terms of cultivating these ‘four beginnings’ into the virtues of benevolence (ren 仁), righteousness (yi 義), decorum (li 禮) and wisdom (zhi 智). Solovyov is likewise insistent both on the exhaustiveness of the possible scope of development of his three moral feelings to the point of moral perfection (involving the perfection of the world), and on the empirical awareness of human imperfection.

The parallels are not perfect, but they are indeed close enough to lead one to wonder if Solovyov took an inspiration from Mencius comparable to that Aquinas took from Aristotle. (That is unlikely except in an indirect fashion, on account of his somewhat unfavourable stated attitudes toward Chinese culture and civilisation.) Solovyov argues extensively for his three ‘beginnings’ in a way Mencius feels compelled to do only through his famous child-at-the-well parable, but otherwise they begin constructing their moral anthropologies in strikingly similar ways.

The one difference – the key difference – appears to lie in the Christian understanding of the Fall of Man, to which Solovyov subscribes fully. Solovyov is painfully aware of the vast gulf fixed between the human need for moral perfection, and the human reality of moral imperfection; he argues that this gulf can be crossed only by and through the God-man. On empirical grounds, he doubts precisely the attainability of human wisdom on its own terms, yet he knows any such wisdom has to make reference to all three natural moral feelings.

Mencius, as is to be expected, places a distinctly pre-Christian trust in the human wisdom of past ages and former kings (xianwang 先王), and does not necessarily posit such a gulf between Heaven and human beings. This difference is what underlies Mencius’s adoption of a fourth ‘beginning’ of the knowledge of right and wrong. For Solovyov this knowledge cannot be anything but problematic outside its religious context, and outside the content of the intrusion of the God-man into history. This is a discussion I haven’t the space to get into here, and which I have addressed in part elsewhere; suffice it to say, the question of human nature, the Fall and the relation between Heaven and Earth is still a thorny theological and cosmological question which continues to plague Confucian-Christian dialogues.

But the parallels between Solovyov’s thinking and Mencius’s, as might be expected when they start from fairly similar understandings of human nature, transcend moral anthropology even to the level of political philosophy and economics. Mencius’s main theme when talking to kings, and his primary concern about the function of government, is precisely benevolence, which as shown above proceeds from the ‘beginning’ of compassion. Likewise, Solovyov refers explicitly to the state as ‘collectively organised pity’, making reference to Vladimir II Monomakh’s compassionate defence of the Russian peasantry from the Kumans and Dante Alighieri’s impassioned call for a monarch in Italy.

Both Mencius and Solovyov, each almost uniquely for their times, likewise placed a particular emphasis on humane care for, preservation and husbandry of the natural world. Mencius placed his emphasis on timely harvests and wood-cuttings, responsible use of fisheries and seasonal breeding of livestock, to ensure that even the weakest and most vulnerable members of society – the elderly and young children – had enough to eat and wear. Solovyov likewise stressed the moral treatment of natural resources, and he even echoes Mencius’s belief that such moral treatment would result in plenty:
Decisive check must be put on the treatment of the earth as a lifeless instrument of rapacious exploitation… if land is treated in the moral way and looked after like a being whom one loves, the minimum amount of land sufficient for each person may become so small that there will be enough for those who have not got any, without doing injustice to those who have.
Mencius and Solovyov furthermore share a concern for a distribution of goods which allows for sufficient living across all groups, with a specific concern for those most vulnerable and subject to disadvantage. They each reject full egalitarianism; Solovyov’s critique of contemporary socialism doesn’t quite exactly mirror Mencius’s lengthy lambasting of Xu Xing, as the issues concerned are somewhat different. But more importantly, both share a deep repugnance for the capitalistic mentality whose first concern is profit. (Mencius goes so far as to blame monopolistic profit-seekers – ‘mean fellows’ 賤丈夫 – for the grim necessity of taxing commerce in markets.) Though the two thinkers use different terms and address different audiences – Mencius being primarily concerned with the behaviour of rulers, and Solovyov more with that of the average reader – both show deep scepticism regarding false universals, and evince political understandings which we would now recognise as communitarian, and place emphasis on the right treatment of those physically and relationally closest to us as being the appropriate and proper points of moral contact.

There is absolutely a far deeper analysis that can be made regarding the points of contact and the points of divergence between these the ancient Chinese and the modern Russian philosopher, but I did want to point out here several of the similarities.

No comments:

Post a Comment